“What had our mothers been doing then that they had no wealth to leave us?… If she had gone into business… the subject of our talk might have been archaeology, botany, anthropology, physics, the nature of the atom, mathematics, astronomy, relativity, geography.” Virginia Woolf’s Room of One’s Own highlighted the societal expectations which had kept women following traditional roles even after the circumstances of the First World War. Their autonomy was limited in academia and available employment compared to their male counterparts. While the workforce has opened up since Friedan’s speech in 1929, societal prejudices continue to influence women’s career choices. The challenges of this topic are most apparent in public discourse surrounding the wage gap. At the same time, the case of women in STEM may serve as a microcosm of the challenges regarding a more extensive societal integration of women into the workforce.
Before Betty Friedan spawned the second-wave Feminist movement fighting for equal work opportunities between men and women, women were generally only allowed to work out of necessity. Gendered job listings were called only for male workers, and women were let go in favour of male employees outside of economic hardship. Both men and businesses fought to keep women in their traditional domestic roles as homemakers. However, from 1940 to 1994, f the workforce percentage of women has increased from 24% to 46% as traditions are sacrificed in the face of practical concerns. While a more significant proportion may be women, they still face discrimination based on their gender. Despite the success of labour movements in Australia and abroad in advocating for workers’ rights as a collective, the concerns they support commonly gloss over issues faced by female workers. Though no longer appearing in the blatant form of sexism noted above, workplace discrimination remains alive and well in a society that cannot leave the past behind.
The wage gap issue
Of the many discriminations, stigmas and barriers placed on women throughout history discussed above, one of the primary and most troubling consequences has been the systemic wage gap between men and women in the workforce. Females in high-ranking industries with the same qualifications, experience and workplace roles as their male colleagues have often faced a significant disparity in their incomes compared to the males. However, this is just the barest outline of the issue. Closing the gender pay gap in practice goes far beyond ensuring equal pay for the same work, though this is a compelling and significant part. The gender pay gap is systemic, rooted in and engendered by outdated and misogynistic mindsets, cultures and societies. Closing the gender pay gap thus requires a wholescale cultural change to ensure that women have the same opportunities that men do to obtain life-long, stable incomes that do justice to their hard work. When viewing it statistically, the outline is bleak indeed. Globally, women earn just 68% of what men are paid for the same work, and this comprises just 40% on average in countries with the least gender parity. Moreover, the World Economic Forum discovered that it would take roughly 257 years to close the gender pay gap and achieve pay equity worldwide. The full-time gender pay gap in Australia is 15.3%, with women earning $253.70 less per week than men.
Researchers have attempted to quantify what causes this disturbing divide. The key reasons include bias in hiring and pay decisions, which can be conscious and unconscious, especially as senior (male) colleagues often render these decisions. Another troubling phenomenon is that industries dominated by women or jobs done by women are often undervalued and pay lower wages on average. Another is that women have an excessive workload of care-taking and household chores which are unpaid and ignored, viewed simply as a domestic necessity that society fundamentally expects women to undertake with no hope of reimbursing their efforts monetarily. Additionally, in the absence of solid worker protection, women taking parental and family leave are often punished for adverse impacts on career progression and opportunities. This is sometimes classified as the “pregnancy penalty”. Lack of flexibility, especially in corporate structures, also impacts women on progressing to higher incomes. These problems are exemplified clearly in practice by the STEM case study below.
Another inherent reason for widening the pay gap is that women aspiring to higher positions often don’t have role models to look up to—“you can’t be what you can’t see”. In Australia, for example, women remain underrepresented at every stage: only 17.1% of CEOs are women, 25.8% of board members and 30% of key management positions. Covid-19 has also had a very unfavourable impact since research cited that the pandemic will widen the pay gap by 5%. Similarly, to decrease the gender pay gap, countries need laws that enforce pay inequity and root out wage discrepancies and their causes. As countries emerge from the pandemic, economic recovery programs and plans should be crafted around bettering women’s career prospects and equity to achieve financial security and independence.
Women in STEM
Female representation in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is crucial in promoting innovation. Innovation is severely limited without the participation of only half the population; hence it is essential to expand the talent pool. Countries prioritising science and innovation are better able to improve the living standards of their people while also burgeoning productivity and sustained economic growth. Survey results from a trade union, Professionals Australia, have found that women in STEM are underpaid, underrepresented and unsupported. Results showed that the STEM field has a 22% gender pay gap. When Covid-19 hit, women experienced more job loss in STEM fields than men did, with the rate of job loss at 6.3% for women compared to 4.8% for men. The survey found that many women plan on leaving the industry, with the pandemic being their final deterrent. At the school level, there are participation differences in specific STEM subjects. While girls comprised 50% of enrolment in year 12 science subjects, they are underrepresented in Information Technology, Physics and Mathematics. Therefore, not all STEM disciplines are equally hard hit when it comes to the under-representation of women. This discipline-specific shortfall carries through to tertiary education, with women comprising less than 15% of domestic Engineering undergraduate courses.
What is causing female underrepresentation in STEM?
Firstly, bias and stereotyping are one of the biggest barriers to females participating in STEM fields. These stereotypes begin early in life and are usually passed down by parents and educators. Young girls are influenced to believe that some STEM fields, like Engineering and Computer Science, are a better fit for males. Another contributing factor is the lack of female role models in STEM fields. Surveys reveal that more than 80% of women perceive a lack of female role models as a significant barrier to gender equity in their field. Finally, poor working conditions in STEM fields are a massive hindrance for women. STEM employees encounter less flexible working conditions, shorter-term contracts than other areas and intricate pathways to a promotion subject to gender bias.
Source: Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources, Australian Government
How is Australia performing compared to other countries?
A recent study revealed a “gender-inequality paradox” whereby there are more women in STEM in developing countries with less gender equality. A recent UNESCO report shows that in Middle-Eastern countries and Latin America, around 50% of engineering graduates are women – whereas, in Australia, only about 20 per cent of graduates are women. Some commentators argue that the cause for the paradox is that women in liberal Western countries have more freedom to choose and therefore are more likely to pursue their genuine interests. This suggests that women may simply be “uninterested” in STEM fields. Contrarily, the paradox can be explained by the fact women willingly choose STEM fields in countries like India and Malaysia because STEM disciplines are perceived to be more female-friendly, with good pay and a safe work environment. Furthermore, women in these countries are driven by altruistic reasons to pursue STEM fields. They see programming and engineering as a noble means of serving their community. Thus, the gender-inequality paradox can be perceived as a critical indicator of the fact that there may be barriers to women in STEM fields that do not exist in other areas.
The road ahead for Australia
Despite many efforts to reduce the STEM inequality in Australia, it is estimated that it will take centuries to close the gender gap. Australia will need to change the status quo, challenge stereotypes, improve working conditions in STEM fields, promote mentorship, and shine the spotlight on Australian female role models. The STEM equity monitor 2021 is a national data report on female participation in STEM. The most recent report shows promising improvement in women’s participation in STEM industries. The proportion of women working in STEM industries rose from 24% in 2016 to 28% in 2020. Concurrently, the proportion of female senior tech managers increased from 18% in 2016 to 23% in 2020. These results show that the collective effort of educators, government and the private sector is beginning to impact positively. However, the report also highlights prominent shortcomings. It revealed that men with a STEM degree were almost twice as likely to be working in a STEM occupation five years after graduating than females. The report also found that weekly conversations about STEM at home were more common among fathers (51%) than mothers (38%), with a more significant proportion of fathers being STEM qualified. Undoubtedly, the road ahead for Australia is long but full of hope. Bright young Australian women are daring to take the path less travelled, and by doing so, they are becoming the great role models they once needed. One such Australian is Dharmica Mistry, who, at just 22, made a medical breakthrough in breast cancer detection which led her to file for an international patent and co-found an Australian biotechnology company.
Historical gender roles have disadvantaged women when it comes to finding equality in the modern workforce. Prejudices and structural deficiencies under-appreciate women’s work, manifesting in negative differences in pay, promotions, treatment and benefits. The STEM field represents an example of women’s capabilities and, in Australia’s case, an indicator of where measures fall short in enabling women to take an equal place in the workforce. While improvements have been made, there is still a long journey before a fully egalitarian society is reached.
The CAINZ Digest is published by CAINZ, a student society affiliated with the Faculty of Business at the University of Melbourne. Opinions published are not necessarily those of the publishers, printers or editors. CAINZ and the University of Melbourne do not accept any responsibility for the accuracy of information contained in the publication.
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